By Kumaran Pillai & Leo Khaw –
This is part 1 of a 4 part series –
Part I: Chee spoke about his brand of politics and why he chose a different strategy from the other opposition parties.
Part 2: Chee’s views on the judiciary and about his moral consciousness.
Part 3: Is democracy a western philosophy or a Universal Principle? Can it be applied to Asian countries? Is there any evidence of Asia having practiced democracy in its early civilizations?
Part 4: What is the meaning of being socially liberal? Where Chee and SDP stand in their economic philosophies
Dr Chee Soon Juan, the caricature of opposition politics in Singapore is seldom portrayed in a positive light. Yet, he never fails to have a sparkle in his conversation about what the future holds. I caught up with him to discuss about his plans, his future, a little bit about his past and particularly about his proposal get out of bankruptcy.
His political strategy of going for broke, quite literally, has brought him into financial straits. Some have questioned his wisdom of doing this, while others think that a more subdued approach like how some of the other leading opposition figures have done would have been better.
I have often wondered if he knew what he was signing up for when he decided to enter politics twenty years ago. Whether politics was on his radar screen, how he got interested in politics, his rise to fame or infamy as some would have it? He has certainly paid a big price, a political one at that, which he needs to overcome in the next few years to establish himself as a player.
Below is the first of a four part series. It is an eye opener if you’ve not known anything about this man. Read it, and find out for yourself if the media has done justice to him, his ideas and philosophy.
KP: You have been in politics for over twenty years and it has been a very rocky ride. They have called you names, bankrupted you and made life extremely difficult for you. Yet, you have persevered. What keeps you going all these years?
CSJ: The worst thing that can happen to any politician is to be ignored. If you’re ignored, it really means you are not doing your job right. In fact, they call you all these names because you are getting under their skin and they just don’t like it. Autocrats don’t know how to react to constructive criticism other than to call you names.
In an autocratic system they also control the mass media and they may succeed with the whole name-calling part and smearing you for the time being. But, you know, you’ve got to persevere.
If you understand autocratic systems, and have some understanding of history, you'll find that people have been worse off than what they have done to me. Some of these people have been imprisoned, maligned, tortured and in some cases even killed! The word then is perseverance. Change doesn’t come without persistence and perseverance. And if we forget that, we won’t achieve what we’ve set out to do.
So look, all these years, they may think that they have gotten the better of me, and they seem to be winning, but you know that freedom and justice finally comes through.
KP: Prior to entering politics, you were a lecturer. You owned a landed property, you were financially stable, and had a stable career. Then it started going downhill because of your involvement in politics and your political beliefs. Do you have any regrets?
CSJ: I’ve lost a lot, but I don’t see the losses in terms of finances. Sure, life has been hard but I never really regretted it.
I really enjoyed research work and I was getting publications into major journals. In fact, I had one of my papers published in the SMJ, Singapore Medical Journal. But, that’s another story. That’s one of my strengths and I really enjoyed it. So, to a certain extent, yes I do miss that!
But, when you compare it to what needs to be done — and you’re talking about an entire society — if there was no one speaking up, things can go very wrong very quickly. So, in that sense, no, I haven’t looked back and said that joining the SDP was something I shouldn’t have done.
There were difficult times, nonetheless, when I wished things were a little better. But, that’s when I tell myself that anything that’s worth doing, is never easy.
KP: What is your definition of success? Would you say that success is only limited to electoral success or do you have a broader definition of success?
CSJ: I have never seen getting into parliament as the endpoint that is not what I perceive as success. If we’ve not reformed the system, whereby there are proper checks and balances, where the media is not controlled where labour unions are free to form and organise, then, we haven’t achieved anything at all!
We have just seen autocrats being displaced by another bunch of autocrats and history is just repeating itself. So, for me at least, success means when we get into the position whereby the ruling party or the government is part of the story and not the story. When we have civil society representing the people or segments of the people and when we have a strong opposition, able and willing to take over the government… That is my definition of success.
KP: Compared to the other political parties, you have taken a different tack. Do you think being more compliant would have been more successful in terms of getting a seat in parliament?
CSJ: I cannot speak for them; I can only speak for myself. If you’re a keen observer, you should be able to compare and contrast. We are not going to get anywhere if all we do is to rely on elections to bring about democratic change.
In a democratic system, you have the media to report fairly on both sides. You look at what’s happening in the UK; you look at what’s happening in the US right now, both incumbent and the challenger get a lot of coverage in the main stream media. We hear about their views, on their policies, on their strategies and so on.
I’m talking about a fair media. That doesn’t exist here in Singapore. How do you begin to fight an election when half the people out there, in fact, the overwhelming majority out there, don’t know what’s going on?
I challenge you to go out and do a survey right now. Has anybody heard of my book ‘Democratically Speaking?’ The news has been going around on the internet but the newspapers are completely silent.
So how would people know? And if they don’t know, how do you expect them to go to the voting booth; and say ‘yes,’ I think this party makes more sense than that party’s policy, that this is what I subscribe to and I think it’s better for our society and country, and then vote accordingly.
In a democratic society, political parties can hold a public assembly so that we can go out and talk to the people. In Singapore, if we walk into a university, NUS for example, and ask students to organise an event so that we can talk to young voters, we’ll get stopped. That limits our ability to reach out. Honestly, how do we ask them to vote for us? So, election in, election out, the PAP "wins".
Now, when people don’t know what the issues are, about how PAP is intimidating us, about our lack of civil liberties, about our economic issues and problems, about our over-reliance on cheap foreign labour and GDP growth at all costs, then how do you expect them to make an informed choice when they vote?
That’s how PAP gets the mandate all the time. What I’m trying to say is: let us be smart about this. Where is the problem? The problem is that we don’t have our freedom and that includes a free media. We don’t have a free press that’s why the PAP gets a free ride into parliament all the time. No, they are not held accountable! Nothing is transparent here.
We have this big problem! If we have a problem, let's resolve it by getting to the root cause. Once all these things are taken care of, we don’t have to worry about elections. The candidate that makes the most sense, the candidate that can appeal to most, the best candidate gets elected into the government.
And on that score, I am absolutely confident that the kind of policies that we’ve been advocating, the people will understand it and when they know it, when they get to hear it, they'll support us.
We don’t have resort to jailing people, we don’t have to shut them up to win elections.
Chee spoke in a soft but firm voice. He spoke with conviction about his beliefs. He is there as a reminder of the artificial boundaries, or OB markers that have been setup by the PAP. They need to be challenged, he says, and overcome in order to reach a society that is free from the political, social and economic domination of a single party.
We went on to speak about a lot of other things, like the media, the judiciary and the economy, which will be covered in the other parts of this series.